When rescuers were at work in the wake of Hurricane Harvey they spotted something in the floodwaters. What the rescue divers saw was a woman, floating in the canal. Then they saw something else as the woman drifted toward imminent danger. There was something clinging to her. Or rather, someone.
It’s unlikely that anyone will forget Hurricane Harvey for many years, least of all the people of Texas. That’s where the storm hit the hardest. Indeed, there are towns along the Texas coast where homes remained scarred from Harvey’s impact two months after it hit land.
Harvey began life as a tropical wave in the Caribbean Sea. On August 17, 2017, the weather front had gained enough force to be labeled a tropical storm. Then, on its three-day course past Barbados and St Vincent, it lost its strength and was downgraded once again to a tropical wave.
Though the storm had weakened, danger was not yet over. As Harvey continued on its path across the Caribbean, it suddenly began to grow in strength on August 24. Over the next two days it intensified to a tropical storm and then to a hurricane, rapidly gaining category four status.
On August 25, Harvey made landfall in Rockport, Texas. It was the first major hurricane to hit the U.S. in 12 years and the strongest since 2004. And although the Lone Star State has endured major hurricanes in the past, rarely has it experienced one of this intensity.
As Harvey touched ground at around 10:00 p.m. in Rockport, Texas, it brought with it devastating winds. Gusts were recorded of up to 132mph, destroying entire blocks in its path. The local courthouse was punctured by flying debris, while one high school’s gymnasium sustained extensive damage.
And then there was the rain. Around 150 miles away from Rockport, Houston recorded higher rainfall than it had ever seen before for two days straight. Harvey brought with it up to five feet of rain in places, making the storm the wettest tropical cyclone ever recorded in the U.S.
With Harvey’s rainfall came devastating floods. In one suburb towards the south of Houston, ten inches of rain fell in an hour and a half. A six-foot storm surge was recorded at a nearby port, meaning that the rain falling on land had no means of escaping into the ocean.
It was predicted that downtown Houston would be submerged under ten feet of water. Compulsory evacuations, then, were ordered on August 27. The expectation was that within two days the area would become impassable due to the overwhelming volume of rain and floodwater Harvey brought with it.
Although attempts were made by the U.S. Army Corps to disperse the build-up of floodwater, it was for some part in vain. According to one estimate, around a quarter of Harris County – an area that includes Houston and some 4.5 million people call home – was submerged. The flooded area totalled 444 square miles.
Despite mandatory evacuations and efforts to ease the rise of the floodwaters, Harvey’s impact proved to be too much. As reservoirs spilled over capacity, some residents were trapped by rising waters. For others, attempts to leave the devastated area came too late.
Like its surrounding areas, Jefferson County, Texas, was in some parts subject to mandatory evacuations. Indeed, Port Arthur, a city situated 91 miles east of Houston, was almost entirely immersed underwater. Neighboring Beaumont, meanwhile, received nearly three feet of rain during Harvey’s onslaught.
At around 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday, August 29, police were called to a flooded area of Beaumont. Two officers and two further fire rescue divers were traveling in a boat scanning the affected area. Then they spotted a woman floating in the water. Someone was clinging to her.
It is believed that a local woman, later identified as 41-year-old Collette Sulcer, was driving along the 50 IH10 N when waters started to rise. Thought to be heading south on a service road, Sulcer pulled into a Plaza 10 parking lot when her vehicle encountered high water.
Sulcer had been traveling with her three-year-old daughter. With her vehicle trapped by floodwaters, she grabbed her baby girl and started to flee on foot. An eyewitness saw Sulcer walking her daughter to safety when the strong current of an overwhelmed drainage canal carried them away.
Rescuers spotted the mom floating in the floodwaters some distance away from her vehicle. As they approached, they saw the baby girl clinging to her mother. The pair, it appeared, were floating perilously close to imminent danger. Rescuers knew they had to move fast.
The three-year-old was hanging on to her mom’s back when rescuers reached them. They were about to float under a trestle as divers lifted Sulcer and her daughter into the rescue boat. Beyond the trestle, waters were too dangerous for the boat to have followed.
“They were in the water for quite some time,” Officer Carol Riley from Beaumont PD told People on the day of the incident. “When the baby was found [she] was clinging to her [mother]. The mother did the best she could to keep her child up over the water.”
Despite their best efforts, rescuers were unable to revive Sulcer. There was better news concerning her daughter, who was alive but suffering from hypothermia. The girl was taken to Beaumont’s Christus St. Elizabeth Hospital, where staff fell in love with the chatty three-year-old.
The little girl had been wearing a backpack, which is thought to have helped keep her above water. Beaumont Police Officer Hayley Morrow said, “I envision what I would do if that was me in that situation and that’s what I would do: I would put my child on my back and try to swim to safety.”